Wednesday, October 12, 2011

That Thing, That Thing

No, I am not channelling Lauryn Hill this fine Wednesday morning. That said, I kind of want to hear 'Doo Wop'. I'll be right back...

Alright, let's get down to business. I figured my lovely blog followers might be getting a little sick of my contemplative blogs. I mean, they're entertaining and well-written, but all you're learning about is me, me, me. As awesome as I am, I think it's time for me to do a blog about the written word.

Today I have selected a pet peeve of mine.

What, another one?

Why, yes. I have a few. Shocking, I know.

One day I'm going to post a blog about the things I actually like and completely throw you for a loop. Jaws will drop. Gasps will be heard. And, chances are, pigs will fly.

Lately, I've been spending a fair amount of time reviewing other people's work, both on websites and through email. I love it when people ask for my help. For a couple of reasons, one being that it gives me a little ego boost to hear people think I actually know what I'm doing! Sometimes it keeps me awake at night knowing I've fooled so many people.

All jokes aside, there are a few problems I see repeatedly when I am reading people's work through. (I'd say editing, but I have never been an editor. You can tell this by the state of my manuscripts) The most glaring issue for me is 'had' and 'personal pronoun starts', one of which I have blogged about previously, the other is waiting in the wings to have its moment of glory. The third, and easiest to correct, is one simple word.

That.

That's the word. That.

This word constantly overruns new authors' novels, to the point where it can actually be a bit embarrassing when it's pointed out. Of course, I say this as someone who knows. A kind lady once pointed out the overwhelming amount of 'that' in my first novel. Actually, she only pointed out how many I had in the first chapter (close to 50) and I'd be lying if I said there weren't upwards of 2,000 that ended up being removed from my manuscript. This is where my cheeks turn red. The ones on my face. Just to be clear.

I suppose some of you are probably thinking, how could anyone not realize they are using a word THAT much?

Easy. We don't see it.

Often we write how we talk and, as authentic as it might seem to do so, it tends to weaken our writing. More often than not, 'that' in narrative is unnecessary. In dialogue, where I think it is more acceptable to use, I feel we still need to be careful we aren't overusing it. I am a firm believer in the importance of writers knowing what words they rely on. Bill Withers might want you to lean on him when you aren't strong, but no one should use any word as a crutch for weak writing. Once you recognize the words you depend on, whether they are 'that' 'just' 'only' 'really' or any of the other pesky critters that sneak into our stories without us noticing, then your writing will become stronger, your sentences fluid and you might end up growing as a writer. 

And that's what this journey is all about. Growth.

I have a feeling a few people are reading this blog and wondering what the heck I am talking about. Well, I love to explain myself and examples always seem to drive the point home. So, here are four examples for you to review before I continue:

After the day's events, Sherry thought that she needed a nice bath to ease her muscles and her mind.

Thinking back on the mistakes that I made in high school, I don't know that I would have changed them if given the option. 

The moon that hung in the sky was like a beacon calling me forward.

All I wanted, more than anything, was to know that he cared.

As per the rules, we don't critique my examples. We accept them for the terrible writing they are and move on.

These sentences have one thing in common (other than being poorly penned) which is the word 'that'. Obviously. I mean, that's what this blog is about. In these instances, we can eradicate the word and pretty much leave the sentence as beautiful and awesome as ever.

After the day's events, Sherry thought she needed a nice bath to ease her muscles and her mind.

Thinking back on the mistakes I made in high school, I don't know if I would have changed them if given the option.

The moon hung in the sky like a beacon, calling me forward.

All I wanted, more than anything, was to know he cared.

Actually, in a lot of cases you might notice the sentence is sturdier without the pesky word clogging it up. Also, paying attention to this sneaky little critter will help with your word count. There's an old saying, 'less is more'. The fewer words you use to say something, the better. Just like people on a diet trim excess weight from their muffin-tops, we writers tackle the task of trimming excess words from our sentences. It isn't easy, but no one is going to do it for us and, in the end, we want a novel that is clear, concise and not-so-clunky.

Here is the point where I stress for the masses (and those who already are irked) that I don't want you to cull all the 'that's from your manuscript.

And in case that isn't enough, I will make it clearer by saying: 

Sometimes the word 'THAT' is necessary.

Sometimes you have to have it. And sometimes we use it to convey tone and expression. Here are some instances where I would let 'that' go forth and do its job:

Aren’t we supposed to avoid making the same mistakes our parents made? Isn’t that our goal?

 "Honey, did you here that?"

And it didn't matter that her parents couldn't love her the way she wanted them to.

That thought never even crossed her mind.

In these examples, I think they are justified. They add expression, tone and swagger. It's like your oddball Aunt Judy. A visit from her every once in awhile is great because she adds a bit of colour to your life and energizes everyone with her boisterous, larger-than-life ways. But you always know when she's made one too many family appearances because everyone gets exhausted and needs a break to regain their strength.

Please keep in mind, if you do notice an exuberant amount of instances where you feel the word is needed then I suggest taking a deeper look. No one needs ten thousand instances of 'that' in their manuscript. And I do mean no one. Rework those sentences and be aware.

The main purpose of this blog is to make you privy to how easily this word is overlooked and how it can slip into your writing without you even realizing it. I have a feeling a few of you are going to go run the 'find' function on your novels to see if this word is an issue for you like it was for me. Don't freak out when you see all those highlighted examples because, and this is the great part, they are easily adjusted and removed. There is a bright side to this. Once you're aware of this often overlooked word, you never forget about it in the future. When writing, you will notice it and be able to decide whether there isn't a stronger way of writing what you want to say and if that 'that' is really necessary or not.

Well, I'm glad we sorted that out.

19 comments:

Bud Jazzman said...

When we follow rules then we are mere sheep. Queen broke the rules with Bohemian Rapsody and ended the 3 minute single.

I was a renegade Apache in another time......

Bud Jazzman said...

Sorry; meant to add that that's all I have to say about that so in saying that I guess that's that then.....xxx

T.L Tyson said...

It isn't a rule, it is being aware of the words you reply on. People don't even notice they do it and it degrades the quality of their writing. It certainly did for me. Being made aware of something you do is key to growth.

I actually don't believe in writing 'rules' If you have voice and a great story you ccan pretty much do anything you please. But if you lean on a specidifc word, it will take away from what you are trying to convey to your readers.

T.L Tyson said...

Rely on! Not reply on. O_o Like I said, I aint no editor.

Bud Jazzman said...

I think that if that is something that is invisible because the story is so engrossing then that both matters and doesn't matter at the same time.....

T.L Tyson said...

Just because it is invisible to the writer, doesn't mean it is invisible to the reader, or those who look to publish work. I once read a book that had 'look/looked/looking' a hundred times in the first three chapters. It was a pretty good book. But too much look/looked/looking. When I brought it to the writers attention they were horrified. They hadn't even noticed. But I noticed. Others would notice too. And it's good to be aware. Just you know, for the sake of being aware.

Bud Jazzman said...

No. I meant the reader being so engrossed that they don't notice that that is that.

Internet Geek said...

I remember a time, over on that certain place, counting the occurrences of those five pesky words (just, really, perhaps, quite and that) in every review I wrote. Mostly because someone pointed it out to me first, resulting in the culling of nineteen bajillion instances of "that" from my own work... *cringe*

Tom S said...

I've recently been introduced to a similar pointless writing trait.
The use of 'starts to/begin to'.

"I started to think he was right..."
'She began to run down the road...'
No need for started to/began to, just get to the damn action!

The only instance where this would be correct is where the protag decided against a line action after starting it, like starting to/beginning to and then stopped and did something else. All a matter of context, like all these 'rules'.

This particular one was pointed out to me in a sample edit by an editor. Invaluable advice, I had tons of them!

T.L Tyson said...

@Internet Geek - I never had a problem with just or really, but that. Oh boy. It was out of control!

T.L Tyson said...

@ Tom S - Yep. Why start, just do it.

Start and began is necessary in SOME instances. Like, I Started towards my car, but he grabbed my arm. If it is intrerupted, I'd leave it in. And other instances.

Tom S said...

Removing this kind of crap also reduces word count and adds pace. It makes me wonder if there are any other instances like this which we could do with culling...

Bud Jazzman said...

I started to stop, but then stopped starting....it just had to stop, starting from the moment I stopped.

T.L Tyson said...

I'm sure there are plenty of things to be aware of. It will come with time.

I imagine.

Maybe

tssharp said...

How much time?

T.L Tyson said...

A day or two?

Exmoorjane said...

That was a long post... :)

Fred said...

Tee,
The most I would say about that, is that one should avoid that wherever one can.
Actually, I am pernickety in my writing about -ly adverbs to describe dialogue. I know Ludlum does it but it really is a bit amateurish.
:-)

T.L Tyson said...

I look at those too and 'ing' words.

Basically, I don't write anything anymore. :D